Tag Archives: naming characters

Thoughts on Character and Place Names #amwriting

I have addressed the subject of names for both places and people before, in my post of January 14, 2019, Naming Characters. A conversation in an online writers’ group has prompted me to revisit it, but there’s no reason for me to repeat the bulk of that post. However, there are some points that could use a little more expansion.

To begin with, names are more than just handles to carry your characters. How we name our characters, and the names we give places in our worlds offers the reader cultural information that you don’t have to resort to giving through an info dump.

A Viking named “Wayne” wouldn’t be believable. But for most Americans and many Europeans, Viking names are difficult to pronounce when written in Old Frisian, which is the root language that English shares with Danish. A good way to keep a cultural feel but make the tale easier to read is to write the names the way they are pronounced or use simple ones.

Many modern Nordic names are easy for English speakers to read and pronounce and will give your story that Saxon flair. So, consider looking names up on baby naming websites rather than the hokey “Discover-Your-Viking-Name” type websites. While “Wayne” doesn’t really work in an Old Saxon-style society, “Fritjof the Flatulent” doesn’t either, unless you are writing comedy.

I stressed this in my previous post, but I feel it needs to be said again. Do keep the simplicity of spelling and ease of pronunciation in mind when sourcing names for your work.  I didn’t understand that concept when I first began writing seriously. When I named my characters, I did it for how the words looked on the page, never considering that they might be read aloud.

When I wrote Huw the Bard, it never occurred to me that most people wouldn’t know that Huw is Welsh for Hugh and is pronounced the same. I was raised around people of both Welsh and Irish origin, and I wanted Huw to have that cultural flavor.

That spelling choice has been a problem since publication because most people are unaware that a “W” is actually a “Double U” – UU -2 U(s). It is pronounced “Yoo” or “oo” (like goo) in Welsh and in old English words.

I have another character in my Tower of Bones series named Friedr – pronounced Free-der. This name is also a problem for readers.

Audio books are the new “must do” way to get your work into the hands of “readers.” How will that name be pronounced when it is read out loud? Take my advice and write your names so a narrator can easily read it aloud without stumbling. If you are just beginning your career as an author, you probably don’t realize how  important this is.

I learned several things about names the hard way. I only have one book that is an Audio book, but the experience of making that book taught me to spell names simply. I resolved my stupidity by telling the narrator he should pronounce the problem names the way that worked best for him, and that made him happy.

There are many good sites for names on the internet. You can find Norse, French, Hawaiian—they are all out there and they have some wonderful, simple names for you to use. You can get a little fancy—that is good and adds a cultural flavor to your characters. But when readers aren’t sure how to pronounce your main character’s name, they might focus on that rather than on your novel.

Speaking as one author to another, you never want to write something into your narrative that will throw the reader out of the book.

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Naming Characters #amwriting

I have mentioned (several times) one of my mistakes in naming characters. In the Tower of Bones Series, I have a main character named Marya. She is central to the series. Also, in the first book, a side character was important enough to have a name. My mind was in a rut when I thought that one up because I named her Marta.

You can see why this is bad—the two names are nearly identical.

To really confuse things, halfway through the first draft of the second book in the series, Marta suddenly was a protagonist with a major storyline. She actually becomes Marya’s mother-in-law in the third book. Fortunately, I was in the final stage of editing book one, Tower of Bones, for publication, and immediately realized I had to make a major correction: Marta was renamed Halee.

In my family, “Robert” is a name with a great deal of repetition. My father was named Robert, my two brothers are both named Robert (with different middle names), and my mother’s younger brother is named Robert. My younger brother’s son is named Robert, as is his son. We have a Bob, a Little Bob, a Rob, a Bobby, a Robby, and a Quatro.

I took this absurdity to an extreme in Billy Ninefingers. In Waldeyn, every third boy is named William, which is why Billy MacNess embraces the name his mercenaries give him after the injury. In that novel, “Williams” generally go by their last names.

Other than Billy Ninefingers where it was intentional and integral to the story, my personal rule is to NEVER name two characters in such a way that the first and last letters of their names are the same. To avoid that circumstance, I try to never have two that even begin with the same letter.

But who should go and who should stay? What is the optimal number of characters for a book? Some say only four, others fifteen.

I feel an author should introduce however many characters it takes to tell the story but should also use common sense.

A name implies a character is an important part of the story. Ask yourself if the character is an example of “Chekhov’s Gun.” Does the person return later in the story or does he or she act as part of the setting, showing the scenery of, say, a coffee shop, or a store? Is it someone the reader should remember? Even if this character offers information the protagonist and reader must know, it doesn’t necessarily mean they need to be named.

Some throw-away characters will give us clues to help our protagonist complete his/her quest or show us something about the protagonist. Their comments could offer us a clue into the protagonist’s personality or past. Other random people are in the scene purely for the ambiance, part of the world-building. A woman smoking in an alley outside the back door to an office needs no name, but she serves as a visible clue about the world the main character is walking in.

Even if they do speak a few lines, if they are just part of the scenery, they don’t need a name.

In an excellent article on screenwriting, Christina Hamlett of the Writer’s Store writes:

In a screenplay, the rhythm you’re attempting to establish–along with the emotional investment you’re asking a reader to make–is disrupted whenever you devote more than two lines of introduction to a character who is simply there to take up space. In order to justify their existence, each player in your script should perform a unique function or deliver a specific line that:

  1. Advances the plot,
  2. Thwarts the hero’s objectives,
  3. Provides crucial background, and/or
  4. Contributes to the mood of the scene.

If you’ve included characters who don’t fulfill one or more of these jobs, they’re probably not critical to the storyline and can be deleted.

While she is speaking of screenplays, this is true of a novel or short story.

We want the reader to stay focused on the protagonist(s) and their story. The desire to make every character a memorable person must be ignored. When we begin revising second draft of our manuscript, we must find and resolve the distractions we inadvertently introduced in our first draft.

My current work in progress has a passage that takes place in an inn and involves a conversation overheard from a table adjacent to my two protagonists and their sidekicks. Despite the fact the merchant and his sons give my protagonists information they needed, they are in that scene for only one purpose. They are to be overheard and don’t appear again. For this reason, only my main characters are named in the full transcript of this scene.

Finding that we have too many named characters is an easy one to fix, once we decide how important that character is to the story. If they don’t appear again, the reader will move on and forget about them. The information they imparted will remain.

I have found that a great use for my extra walk-on characters is the short story. The world is already built, and they have a story, albeit a short one. Use them to your advantage.

I now keep in mind simplicity of spelling and ease of pronunciation when I name my characters. How will that name be pronounced when it is read out loud? You may not want to get too fancy with the spelling, so that the narrator can easily read that name aloud. You may not think this is important, but it is.

My advice is to keep it simple. Don’t confuse your readers by giving unimportant walk-on characters names. Be vigilant when choosing names—don’t give two characters names that are nearly identical.

Do make your spellings of names and places easily pronounceable. You may decide to have your book made into an audio book, and the process will go more smoothly if you’ve considered this in advance. I only have one book that is an Audio book and the experience of making that book taught me to spell names simply.


Credits and Attributions:

Minor Characters Don’t Need Major Introductions, Christina Hamlett, Copyright © 1982 – 2017 The Writers Store ® Incorporated, accessed Mar. 11, 2017.

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#amwriting: naming people and places

When I was laying down the first draft of my current work in progress, I somehow managed to give every walk-on a name, right down to the dog. That was immediately corrected, although the dog is an important side-kick and still has a name.

Because a reader can only keep so many character names straight in their mind, I was forced to whittle down my cast of thousands. An author should introduce however many characters it takes to tell the story, but should also use common sense.

In a scifi or fantasy tale, naming can get out of hand, sometimes with every single object or utensil, down to the  most common of tools being given a weird name. A hammer should just be be a hammer, please.

I consider that too much detail, and unnecessary. Think of all the names the reader must try to keep straight in a simple tale as if they were people you had just met at a party–that is what the reader faces in the opening chapters of a story.

  1. Character names, pet names, etc.
  2. Town names: Includes shops and restaurants.
  3. Country names, if part of the story .
  4. Myriad other named people, places, and things.

When you introduce a named character, ask yourself if it is someone the reader should remember. Even if he or she offers information the protagonist and reader must know, it doesn’t necessarily mean they need to be named. Some throw-away characters will give us clues to help our protagonist complete his/her quest, or show us something about the protagonist, give us a clue into their personality or past.

The same follows for places—if the village of Maldon has no bearing on the story, don’t mention it.

You must decide how important a character’s role is. If it’s a walk-on, a person who will only have a brief paragraph in the tale, consider not naming them. Ask yourself if the person will return later in the story or are they acting as part of the setting, part of the scenery in a coffee shop, or perhaps a store. If they are just part of the scenery, they don’t need a name.

Only give names to characters who advance the plot.

In an excellent article on screenwriting, Christina Hamlett of the Writer’s Store writes:

In a screenplay, the rhythm you’re attempting to establish–along with the emotional investment you’re asking a reader to make–is disrupted whenever you devote more than two lines of introduction to a character who is simply there to take up space. In order to justify their existence, each player in your script should perform a unique function or deliver a specific line that:

  1. Advances the plot,
  2. Thwarts the hero’s objectives,
  3. Provides crucial background, and/or
  4. Contributes to the mood of the scene.

If you’ve included characters who don’t fulfill one or more of these jobs, they’re probably not critical to the storyline and can be deleted.

While she is speaking of screenplays, this is true of a novel or short story. A name implies a character is an important part of the story. Sometimes a character is an example of “Chekhov’s Gun.” Does this character serve a purpose the reader must know and will they return? If not, don’t give them a name.

One of my works in progress has a passage that takes place in an inn and involves a conversation overheard from a table adjacent to my protagonists. Despite the fact the merchant and his sons give my protagonists information they needed, they are in this scene for only one purpose: to be overheard mentioning the Cardinal and don’t appear again. For this reason, only my protagonist and his party are named, while all you need to know about the merchant and his sons is shown by their conversation and brief descriptions as speech tags: The portly merchant spoke softly. “You never listen to me. Now here you are, on the run from the Cardinal. Getting you out of the country will be costly. If I beggar myself to bail you out of this mess, how will I support myself in my old age?”

Novelists can learn a great deal about how to write a good, concise scene from screenwriters. An excellent book I have gained a lot of knowledge from is Story by Robert McKee. If you can get your hands on a copy, I highly recommend it.

We want the reader to stay focused on the protagonist(s) and their story. The second draft is where we make every effort to find the distractions we may have inadvertently introduced in our rough draft, and extraneous named characters is an easy one to fix. Simply remove their name, and identify them in general terms. The reader will move on and forget about them.

The tendency to make every character a memorable person is one we can’t indulge. The reader will become confused if too many characters are named.

In one of my early books, I learned a difficult lesson the hard way about naming characters. In the Tower of Bones Series, I have a main character named Marya. She is central to the series. Also, in the first book, a side character was important enough to have a name, but my mind must have been in a rut when I thought that one up: for some stupid reason I named her Marta.

You can probably see where this is going—the two names are nearly identical.

What is even worse, halfway through the first draft of the second book in the series, Marta suddenly became a protagonist with a major storyline. She becomes Marya’s mother-in-law in the third book. Fortunately, I was in the final stage of editing book one, Tower of Bones, for publication, and immediately realized I had to make a major correction: Marta was renamed Halee.

My rule now is to NEVER name two characters in such a way that the first and last letters of their names are the same. To avoid that circumstance, I try to never have two that even begin with the same letter.

One last thing to consider: will you want to publish your book as an audiobook? If so, how will that name be pronounced when it is read out loud? You may not want to get too fancy with the spelling so that the narrator can easily read that name aloud. You may not think this is important, but it is. I only have one book that is an audiobook, but during the recording of that book, my narrator had trouble pronouncing the names of two characters, because I had written the names so they would look good on paper, not realizing they were unpronounceable as they were written. We ironed that out, but the experience taught me to spell names simply.

Because of my early “good ideas gone awry” when it comes to names, my rules for names are simple:

  1. Don’t confuse your readers by giving unimportant walk-on characters names.
  2. Never name two characters names that are nearly identical or that begin and end with the same letter.
  3. Consider making the spellings of names and places pronounceable in case you decide to have your book made into an audiobook.

Credits and attributions: 

Minor Characters Don’t Need Major Introductions, Christina Hamlett, Copyright © 1982 – 2017 The Writers Store ® Incorporated, accessed Mar. 11, 2017.

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